Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Six Of The Best

Ireland can definitely do it but based on what we have seen so far, it’s England in the driving seat.

six of the bestSat Mar 8 - IRELAND v ITALY, 2:30pm

Sat Mar 8 - SCOTLAND V FRANCE, 5pm

Sun Mar 9 - ENGLAND v WALES, 3pm

Sat Mar 15 - ITALY V ENGLAND, 12:30pm

Sat Mar 15 - WALES v SCOTLAND, 2:45pm

Sat Mar 15 - FRANCE v IRELAND, 5pm


You’d be forgiven for thinking my title was to do with the actual Six Nations themselves, but the six I’m referring to is matches, not nations.

Obviously nobody wants to see their side lose, but the fact that Ireland, England, Wales and France are locked together on two wins with two matches remaining each surely must make this the most exciting championship ever, and there is plenty of drama left to come with each of the remaining six tests all set to have a bearing on the outcome.

Basically each of the four teams in contention for title faces one match against the bottom two and one against a fellow challenger.  The key variables, however, are the home & away factors for each country plus the actual order of matches.

So I have decided to take a step back and look at what each team has ahead of them and see if England, who are now favourites to win the Six Nations with Ladbrokes, are worthy of the tag.

Let’s look at them one-by-one, working upwards from the bottom of the table as it stands now…there’s time enough to look in-depth at individual players & formations - here I’m just focusing on the match-ups themselves and the order in which they come.

ITALY - Was never going to be easy to hit the heights of last year but it’s not the 3 defeats out of 3 that will be demoralising for them, more the way that third defeat was inflicted on them in front of their home crowd last weekend at the very end.  Now they find themselves left to play the two teams that have just combined to produced one of the most keenly-fought test matches in the tournament’s history. 

With the Parisse factor (I know I said I wasn’t going to mention players but in Italy's case you can’t avoid chucking his name in somewhere), they will always do well in patches but as always it’s their inability to string together a full 80-minute display that is likely to work against them.

SCOTLAND - Blushes definitely spared by Duncan Weir’s last-gasp heroism in Rome, but of the two sides at the bottom of the table they definitely seem to be best poised to upset the applecart of the top four in their remaining matches.   The French are up next for them at Murrayfield, and after their hapless showing in Cardiff the Scots must fancy their chances.  If they don’t at least come out with a bit of fire in their belly from the kickoff, it will be a massive disappointment for their loyal fans.

FRANCE - Apologies for the soccer analogy, but the French are becoming to rugby what Manchester United have been for the Premiership this season.  I’m still coming to terms with their getting the wooden spoon last season, but to go from that to this season’s efforts, which let’s face it but for a couple of fortunate bounces of the ball could have them with two defeats not one, puts Phillippe St Andre in a seemingly inescapable position.

But although it’s a reasonably-sized “if”, if they do beat Scotland it will mean that whatever happens in the other matches, they will take the field against Ireland with a specific number as a target margin of victory to aim for (likely to be around the 20 mark), and if they can manage an early score or two to get the Parisian crowd behind them, you just never know with the French.

WALES - Given how they lost the opening match of last year’s tournament and went on to take the title, you can hardly blame them for retaining confidence until they are mathematically eliminated.  But I’m wondering if their win over France is as marvellous as many are making it out to be.  I suppose we’ll know for sure once we see how they get on in the Bosh Bowl at Twickenham.  If they win that, then it’s a case of pummelling the Scots into submission in Cardiff and hoping France & Ireland can get the maths right to give us an excuse to use that woeful US sports term “3peat” and get those premature “Gatland for Lions 2017” headlines springing up again.

ENGLAND - I wonder how much longer Stuart Lancaster can keep playing the “humble underdog” card after last Saturday?  Perhaps the Welsh confidence I spoke of earlier can help him in that regard?  If both Ireland and France win the day before, the pressure will be not only to beat the Welsh but beat them well.  That plus the six-day turnaround for an early Rome kickoff could pose a challenge to the coaching staff, but with two weeks to prepare and given they already have two campaigns under their belt, they should be well capable of managing their squad and probably deserve the favourites tag.

IRELAND - I reckon Joe Schmidt has the best possible schedule of the remaining matches.  We play Italy at home first so there won’t be any other results preying on our minds, which means he can simply send his charges out looking for a decent margin of victory.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be out of sight given we go into the final series with a 21-point head-start in the “points difference” column over England, but we definitely want some breathing room for the trip to Paris.  Still, beating Italy any which way guarantees that no matter what happens in the four other matches to follow, Ireland will take the field at the Stade de France knowing we have a shot at the title.  And who doesn’t want that?


So when all is said and done, I reckon the matches against the “bottom two” should go according to form and England will out-last Wales, which leaves it all down to France v Ireland. 

We have seen several amazing things from Joe Schmidt’s Ireland, but the one thing we have been lacking could well be the one thing we need to lift the trophy.  If we have a lead going into the final quarter in Paris, we’ll need our leaders on the pitch to find a simple way to bring it home. 

But of course I am getting way, way ahead of myself there.  These six remaining matches are bound to have at least one wild card in the mix where we see an eyebrow-raising result.  I think it could be Scotland v France but as we have seen in recent campaigns anything is possible.

All we can do is thank the rugby gods for some domestic action next weekend to keep us occupied and then it’s time to hold onto our hats as the mouth-watering six-test series gets underway at the Palindrome on March 8. Bring it on! JLP

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